The 11 Most Important Leaders Needed to Solve Homelessness in Orlando


Orlando and the greater Central Florida community have made tremendous progress in their effort to solve the local homeless problem and have in turn helped thousands get off the streets. In fact, many analyses have concluded that street homelessness in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole Counties has declined by as much as 50 percent over the past three years.

We were able to make this remarkable progress by bringing together a collaborative group of civic leaders who possessed not only their own individual perspectives on the homeless problem, but a willingness to work together to solve this perplexing problem.

But the problem of homelessness is complicated and still needs ongoing leadership in the greater Orlando community. The following Central Floridians are the men and women who are now the most critical leaders going forward to continued progress toward ending homelessness once and for all in Central Florida.

Joel Hunter is a leader on homelessness in Central Florida#11: DR. JOEL HUNTER


Dr. Joel Hunter recently resigned as the senior pastor of Longwood’s Northland Church to start a new organization called the Community Resource Network, a Central Florida-based nonprofit corporation dedicated to bringing together a network of churches in order to help families that are homeless. While Orlando has made tremendous strides forward in reducing veteran and chronic homelessness, much remains to be done for local homeless families; many of whom live in run-down hotels and are struggling to maintain stable housing. So Hunter is emerging as a new force for this cause.

Family homelessness is a complicated issue that will require tremendous champions if progress is to be made. The question that awaits an answer is if Dr. Hunter can find a way to begin to be this force and to have the ability to get out communities leaders to start a real dialogue on issues like poverty, employment, and affordable housing in our region. Without a movement to work on other interrelated factors that contribute to family homelessness, no real progress will be made to help homeless families in our region. Hunter has his work cut out for him, but he also has the unrelenting faith that is required to step into this important area of need.

Linda Landman Gonzalez and the Orlando Magic lead homelessness in Central Florida#10: LINDA LANDMAN GONZALEZ


Linda Landman Gonzalez is vice-president of social responsibility for the Orlando Magic and the president of the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation. A past chairperson for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, Gonzalez was at the helm of the Commission during its most prolific period of resource development and advocacy in the community to date. She is one of the most respected voices in Central Florida when it comes to nonprofit and charitable work.

Gonzalez has the rare ability to work with powerful elected officials and key leaders from business, the faith community, and the nonprofit sector who are interested in the betterment of our community, and she has an ability to incorporate all these diverse viewpoints in the process of finding solutions to troubling problems. She knows how to incorporate all these diverse viewpoints in the process of finding solutions to troubling problems. And with the backing of one of our most important corporate giants, the Orlando Magic, Gonzalez is a voice that must always be respected.

When building and maintaining momentum on an issue like homelessness, the ability to create consensus among competing influential personalities is invaluable, but Gonzalez has the rare skill for facilitating this type of dynamic collaboration. With several new aspiring leaders entering the political arena over the next 2 years (including a new Orange County Mayor), Linda Landman Gonzalez may be called upon to play a key role in confirming the commitment of these rising cross-sector leaders to the local work of ending homelessness.

Mary Downey is a homelessness leader in Osceola County Florida#9: MARY DOWNEY


Homelessness in Central Florida is an issue that can only be solved through the collaborative efforts of leaders and key influencers throughout the tri-county area (Orange, Osceola, and Seminole Counties). For the past few years, however, Osceola County and the City of Kissimmee have often struggled to find tangible solutions to their perplexing homeless issues. And that is why Mary Downey is such an important voice for the homeless in that area.

Downey is the executive director of the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee. In her capacity as a local advocate for the homeless, she is a constant light of hope for the many homeless families she impacts, working with thousands in need each year. But while Downey’s flag is firmly planted in Osceola County and while she is staunchly committed to helping her community find lasting solutions for the homeless who live along the Highway 192 corridor, the question is whether her tremendous respect throughout the region can be a catalyst for Osceola County leaders to rally around her, giving the people of that county a credible and substantial path forward in the fight against homelessness.


Obviously the Orlando Sentinel isn’t a person, so this entry might bend the rules just a little. Nevertheless, prominent writers, columnists, and editorial leadership at the Sentinel have been a tremendous force in our community’s progress in the effort to end homelessness. They have helped to create momentum on the issue simply by covering the story and covering it accurately and frequently.

In an era of “fake news” and a time of uncertainty regarding the role of the media in our society, the Orlando Sentinel has done an exemplary job in reporting on the local homeless problem and the effort to prevent and end homelessness in our region. The paper, therefore, has helped us achieve some real and lasting changes on this issue by shining a continual light on the problem and on the various efforts to solve the problem.

Whether or not we always agree with the Sentinel, we can all agree that when the Sentinel’s writers and editorial board speak, this community’s most powerful people listen. So now that real progress has been made on the homeless issue in Orlando, it will be interesting to see if the newspaper continues to hold the feet of key influencers and decision-makers to the fire when it comes to finishing the job.



Bakari Burns is the president and chief executive officer of Health Care Center for the Homeless, one of the many nonprofit organizations that has stepped up in a big way to help address the problem of housing for the homeless in Central Florida. According to many estimates, Central Florida has helped between 1500 and 2000 people make their way off the streets of our community and into housing over the past 36 months, and organizations like the Health Care Center for the Homeless have been instrumental in driving this profound progress.

Burns has taken the resources committed to him and has utilized those resources to help implement the “housing first” model in Greater Orlando. The “housing first” model is the philosophy of housing people first… then helping them solve their individual problems afterward. Burns also leads the majority of street outreach groups in our community that make one-on-one contact with the homeless, especially the chronically homeless who have been on our streets for years. So Bakari Burns and the staff at Health Care Center for the Homeless do much of the one-on-one work with the homeless that is vital to finding solutions.

Policy is definitely important in the effort to solve the homeless dilemma. But personal interaction with the homeless is important too, because the streets don’t lie. We must have nonprofit leaders and outreach workers interacting with the homeless on a daily basis so they can see exactly who is in need while making sure that we are all using our limited resources in a way that positively impacts the people who need our help the most. Homelessness is solved one person, one name, one story at a time, and the Health Care Center for the Homeless is one of the primary groups committed to this essential aspect of the work. It will be important, therefore, for Burns and his organization to get more support so they can handle this awesome responsibility and get better at the case management aspects of homeless work.



Although Dr. Carson does not live in Orlando, the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development will have a strong influence on whether Orlando and other cities across America are able to adequately address the homeless issue.

Resources provided by government make up a large percentage of the total resources needed to drive a successful homeless initiative in a community, and HUD is one of the biggest suppliers of these resources. So the question awaiting an answer is whether Dr. Carson will continue his support of the “housing first” model and continue to press President Trump for the funding for permanent housing for those who suffer from chronic homelessness. This innovative approach to solving homelessness is a strategy that has enjoyed rare bipartisan support since its inception and a model that has been one of the most successful social services programs in American history. So will the new secretary of HUD stand by his statements of support for housing solutions, or will he give in to some in his own party who would encourage him to roll back any program that bears the endorsement of former President Obama?

Whether or not we like to admit it, the federal government through HUD does set the tone for homeless solutions throughout the country. Carson’s beliefs and actions, therefore, will strongly impact what communities are able to do to combat the persistent problem of homelessness.

Mark Brewer is a leader on homelessness and philanthropy#5: MARK BREWER


Mark Brewer is president and CEO of the Central Florida Foundation. He is one of the most respected community leaders in Orlando and a powerful philanthropic voices, not just in Central Florida, but in our nation.

Brewer, in partnership with the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, helped establish the Homeless Impact Fund, a funding vehicle that has brought various philanthropists together to work collaboratively for the very first time on homeless solutions and homeless funding policies for Central Florida.

In the world of wishful thinking, it is easy to propose theories and solutions to homelessness that look good on paper. But in the real world, money drives solutions to homelessness, and philanthropic dollars have the ability to affect government spending on the problem, as well as nonprofit spending and accountability. So Brewer, through the Central Florida Foundation, has had a tremendous impact on the state of homelessness in our region.

In fact, Mark Brewer’s work with the Commission on Homelessness helped to generate or redirect more than $58 million over a period of just 28 months for the work to end homelessness in our community. In Orlando, therefore, philanthropy has helped drive new solutions for homelessness, and Brewer’s leadership will be critical if we intend to keep our local funders working together and if we are to hold elected leaders and nonprofit organizations accountable for the results we still need to see.

David Swanson Lead Homelessness Central Florida#4: DR. DAVID SWANSON


Dr. David Swanson is the senior pastor of Orlando’s First Presbyterian Church and the incoming chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. For the past several years, he has been one of our community’s most powerful and persuasive voice for the homeless and has been a champion on the issue of chronic homelessness, especially chronic homelessness in the downtown corridor.

From his platform as the spiritual leader of a highly visible and influential church, Dr. Swanson has been an inspirational leader on the issue of homelessness, impacting the thinking and eventual actions of elected officials and other leaders from a broad spectrum of the community. He has helped cast the vision for solving the problem of homelessness in Orlando and has helped make the moral case for housing the chronically homeless, who are usually incapable of providing for themselves or fully functioning in society.

Faith leaders are extremely important in the effort to end homelessness, because they can be the voice of morality to the residents of a community. While Mark Brewer and other business and philanthropic leaders have helped make the financial case of housing the homeless in Central Florida, Swanson and other faith leaders have helped to make the moral case for that goal.

To solve the problem of homelessness locally, a community must change its beliefs about the homeless and about the best solutions for the homeless problem. In addition, effective advocates must change the beliefs and misconceptions held by local leaders and average citizens about homeless people. Swanson has helped to do both. So let’s see if his leadership can influence a whole new generation of Central Florida leaders when it comes to the moral obligation to help the least among us.

Shelley Lauten Central Florida Homelessness Leader#3: SHELLEY LAUTEN


In November 2016, Shelley Lauten assumed the role of chief executive officer of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, the organization that was instrumental in bringing the community together around the issue of homelessness 3 years ago and driving the necessary resources of the community toward a consensus strategy for aggressively confronting the problem in the city and surrounding communities.

An organization like Lauten’s is incredibly important, because, when people and organizations work separately toward a commonly held goal like ending homelessness, that goal can never be achieved. But when a coordinated pathway forward can be defined and managed by a “backbone” organization, the goal becomes both achievable and affordable. Lauten’s job, therefore, is to bring leaders together from the public and private sectors, from the faith and philanthropic communities, and from the various nonprofits that serve the needs of the homeless so they can continue to do together what they could never do apart.

Central Florida will face a real challenge on this issue in the coming years as current resources for fighting homelessness are depleted and new resources are required. So the formula for staying on top of the local homeless problem will be to have one goal, one strategy for achieving that goal, and one dominant “voice” that can rally successive generations of leaders and funders around the cause of homelessness. Lauten must be that civic voice. She is the key to making the process work.

Martha Are homeless leader in Central Florida#2: MARTHA ARE


In every community, there is an organization designated by the federal government to serve as the recipient and distributor of all federal funds allocated to that community for the purpose of solving the homeless problem in that locality, and this federally recognized organization is commonly referred to as the Continuum of Care (CoC). In Orlando, the lead agency for the COC is the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida (HSN). Martha Are is the chief executive officer of HSN.

To address homelessness in a productive way, a CoC must ultimately develop what is known in its community as a “coordinated system.” A coordinated system is the system that local service providers develop in order to serve all the needs of the homeless in a flawless and systematic way. For instance, one organization might focus on finding the homeless and gathering vital data about them, while other government agencies and nonprofit entities focus on locating affordable housing for the homeless or working with homeless on an individual basis to make sure they don’t return to the streets (case management). The “coordinated system,” therefore, is the local system that a CoC creates to divide the workload among various organizations and manage that workload in an efficient, effective, and transparent way until the task of housing the homeless is complete.

Until just a few years ago, Orlando was not housing the homeless at all; we were simply tolerating the homeless. But now, through “housing first,” we are housing the homeless in a very responsible way, and Martha Are and her staff are the people who are driving and managing the coordinated system that makes this work possible. So Are and the HSN will need a lot of support in order to perfect all the skills required to fulfill their responsibilities with excellence, because they will determine whether Orlando is actually successful in ending homelessness. When someone gets housing in Central Florida, more than likely it is Martha Are and her organization that make the process possible. So Are will be called upon to evolve her agency and to house more of those in need across the region.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer leads homelessness in his city#1: BUDDY DYER


It is hard to overstate the local political power of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. As they say, “What Buddy wants, Buddy gets.” As the most formidable political leader in our community, therefore, Dyer’s strong backing and continued support on the issue of homelessness will be critical to preserving past gains and building upon those gains in the future.

It was Dyer who, in 2014, made the first real commitments on the issue of homelessness in Orlando, publicly pledging to house more than 300 homeless people in downtown Orlando over 3 successive years and naming homelessness as “the most important issue” at that time for his administration.

It is impossible to solve the problem of homelessness without the wholehearted support and personal participation of key leaders like Mayor Dyer. In fact, leaders from all sectors of the community must step forward and take responsibility for the problem of homelessness before the problem will start to improve. But no leader is more vital to success on this issue than the top leader in local government, the mayor. And his support must continue to go beyond words and platitudes. His support must include policy changes and resources as well, things that Buddy Dyer has been willing to offer.

Dyer also has great influence over other regional governmental leaders and will be key to keeping their support and resources committed to this issue. So Dyer exemplifies the type of leadership that is needed to create real transformation on homelessness within a community, and his willingness to continue leading on this issue will be extremely important if we intend to finish the work we have started. After all, what Buddy wants, Buddy gets. Let’s hope he still wants total success on the important issue of homelessness.

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